IN THE annals of presidential debates, it’s unclear whether Wednesday night’s showdown between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will go down as a classic. The match-up failed to spawn any memorable Reaganesque one-liners, evocations of Clinton-style empathy or knock-out blows. And yet the winner was largely uncontested.
Through sheer consistency, Romney emerged as the clear victor. Romney was succinct, Obama verbose. The Republican was primarily attacked for lacking detail. But, as Obama well knows, when you give lucid arguments the details don’t always matter. The President appeared exhausted and rambled, constantly reverting to what sounded like a stale campaign speech about clean energy and the mess he inherited. The gulf in quality was staggering. Even Obama’s most fervent supporters acknowledged defeat, while others hopelessly blamed the debate moderator. Andrew Sullivan, the British blogger, dubbed the President’s performance “a disaster”, going so far as to claim that “Obama may even have lost the election tonight.”
Romney’s performance will likely have been aided by expectations. In the build-up to Wednesday, both camps initiated the longest sustained period of niceties of the whole campaign, setting the bar higher for their opponent. In a Pew poll, just 29 per cent of voters expected Romney to emerge the victor. But now things are looking good for the Republican. A CNN survey found that 58 per cent regarded Romney as the better leader after the debate, with 67 per cent declaring him the winner. Such a wide margin is rare. According to the network’s polling director, no presidential candidate, even Ronald Reagan after his demolition of Walter Mondale in 1984, “has ever broken 60 per cent.”
It’s still unclear whether enough viewers in key swing states deemed Romney’s performance presidential or even watched. But the consensus is that the debate should have done more than enough to get his campaign firmly back on track. The question is now, what next? Romney has had the propensity to squander momentum from debates, leaving supporters concerned and activists frustrated. Republicans now want him to be ruthless, to go after the administration over Libya, and to exploit Obama’s vulnerabilities over the economy. Just last week, US second quarter economic growth was downgraded and few expect Friday’s jobs numbers to breed much confidence. In sum, Republicans want the Romney from Wednesday evening.
As Obama walked off the stage a defeated man, his opponent still exuded confidence. Romney may have taken a pounding at times in the Republican primaries, but its 20 debates were sound preparation for Wednesday. And, just like back then, he performed when it mattered. But having benefitted from low expectations in the first debate, Romney now faces the challenge of maintaining this high standard in the next two.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based consultant. Follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt